Tag Archives: Environment

The Race to Put Silk in Nearly Everything

WIRED

The fiber has been considered a “miracle material” for anything from body parts to food. Has the revolution finally arrived?

ALI ALWATTARI STILL remembers the day he met the goats. It was mid-May, 19 years ago, in Quebec. The sun was lighting up the old maple sugar farm—and small huts where the goats were living. Alwattari, a materials scientist, had spent his career tinkering with chemistry equipment for Procter & Gamble, developing fibers used in Pampers and Swiffers. But the startup Nexia Biotechnologies was aiming to use an entirely different kind of polymer producer—and it was gazing back at him with its rectangular pupils.

Read the full story in WIRED

How Many People Die When Polluters Exceed Their Limits?

WIRED

A new report tallies the death toll from excess emissions by looking at air pollution and spikes in local ozone levels.

MEASURING AIR QUALITY is inherently a measure of excess—any amount of toxic nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, and fine particulate matter is probably bad for human health. But when it comes to federal regulations, the notion of excess gets a bit wonky. When a refinery or plant outstrips the limits set by the local public health authorities to cap pollution, those fumes are considered “excess emissions,” or, more wonkily still, “exceedances.”

Emissions limits are arbitrary, of course. Less pollution is always better in a country where more than 20 people die every hour from poor air quality, and where that burden skews toward communities of color. But parsing the human cost of these overflows is helpful for weighing—or possibly tightening—those arbitrary limits. So Nikolaos Zirogiannis, an environmental economist at Indiana University, decided to quantify the health toll in one state: How many people die each year as a result of that extra pollution?

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Hungry, Hungry Microbes in Tree Bark Gobble Up Methane

WIRED

Bad news: Trees emit methane, a greenhouse gas. Good news: Some are home to bacteria that can’t get enough of it.

MANY OF TODAY’S geoscientists are carbon voyeurs. Knowing that human disregard for the carbon cycle has screwed the climate, they have kept a close eye on carbon’s hottest variants—carbon dioxide (CO 2) and methane. Both gasses trap heat on the planet through the greenhouse effect, and over a span of 100 years methane is 28 times more potent than CO2. Rigorously accounting for greenhouse gas flow is step one of building models that predict the future climate.

Some line items in the methane budget, such as pipeline leaks and cow farts, are well understood. But others are hazier. “There’s lots of gaps and uncertainties, particularly in wetlands, and inland waters,” says Luke Jeffrey, a biogeochemistry postdoc at Southern Cross University in Australia. By one 2020 tally from the Global Carbon Project, wetlands emit about 20 to 31 percent of Earth’s annual methane release—more than the amount from fossil fuel production.

But in the past decade, researchers have zeroed in on a perhaps counterintuitive source of greenhouse gas emissions: trees. Freshwater wetland trees, in particular. Trees bathing in wet or flooded soil absorb methane and then leak it through their bark. In a 2017 study, ecologist Sunitha Pangala, then at the Open University in the United Kingdom, found that trees in the Amazon were responsible for 200 times more methane than trees in other wetland forests, accounting for 44 to 65 percent of the region’s total emissions.

Does this mean trees are bad for the planet? Of course not. Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And in a study published April 9 in Nature Communications, Jeffrey and his team report how trees can also be methane sinks, sheltering microbes that convert it to the less damaging CO2.

Read the full story in WIRED

Ocean Acidification Could Make Tiny Fish Lose Their Hearing

WIRED

Their inner ears turn wonky when they grow up in carbon-rich water, which could keep juveniles from finding their way to the reefs. That could mean trouble.

AN IMMOBILIZED FISH lay between Craig Radford’s fingers. The several-week-old Australasian snapper, no longer than a pinkie nail, rested flat on a slab of modeling clay, held down by small staples—“as someone would strap you down on an ambulance bed to hold you there,” says Radford. He stuck tiny electrodes on the fish’s head, then submerged it in a tank and switched on an underwater speaker. It was time to test its hearing.

“If you actually put your head underwater and take the time to listen, it’s amazing what you’ll hear,” Radford says. “From whales to fish to crustaceans—sound plays an important role in many, many different species’ life strategies.”

But Radford’s experiment wasn’t due to curiosity about what the world sounds like to fish. He was worried about how well they could hear it.

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Are Forever Chemicals Harming Ocean Life?

THE REVELATOR

Here’s what we know (and don’t know) about how dangerous PFAS chemicals travel ocean currents and harm wildlife — and what that could mean for humans.

In seabird after seabird, Anna Robuck found something concerning: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, lurking around vital organs.

“Brain, liver, kidney, lung, blood, heart,” Robuck says, rattling off a few hiding spots before pausing to recall the rest. Robuck, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, quickly settles on a simpler response: She found the chemicals everywhere she looked.

PFAS — a group of synthetic chemicals — are often called “forever chemicals” due to their quasi-unbreakable molecular bonds and knack for accumulating in living organisms. That foreverness is less of a design flaw than a design feature: The stubborn, versatile molecules help weatherproof clothing; smother flames in firefighting foam; and withstand heat and grime on nonstick pans.

Through consumption and disposal, the chemicals seep into ecosystems and bodies, where they have been linked to cancers, pregnancy complications, and reproductive and immune dysfunction. Recent attention has focused on the prevalence of PFAS in drinking water.

“Over the past 10-15 years we’ve really developed this super negative picture of what PFAS do to humans,” Robuck says. “But we’ve barely scratched the surface of that in wildlife.”

Read the full story in The Revelator

Cicadas Are Delightful Weirdos You Should Learn To Love

SMITHSONIAN

As Brood IX takes flight for the first time in 17 years, cicada lovers have their ears open.

Around this time of year, Marianne Alleyne hosts dozens of houseguests in her basement. Far from using camping equipment or cots, they sleep upside-down, clinging to a curtain. The entomologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has collected cicadas, those bizarre and misunderstood cyclical insects, for four years.

“In Illinois, we have 20 species, and hardly anything is known about them,” Alleyne says. “We know very little about what they’re doing underground.”

Cicadas have a longstanding reputation as loud, swarming pests that keep obnoxiously particular schedules. In the United States, they got a bad rap from the beginning, as early colonists misidentified these clouds of emerging cicadas as locusts. “They were thought of as a biblical plague,” says John Cooley, an assistant professor in residence at the University of Connecticut. That impression has been a lasting one: a group of cicadas is still referred to as a plague or a cloud. “The question I get the most is ‘How do I kill them?’” Cooley says.

Read the full story in Smithsonian

How Scientists Use Climate Models to Predict Mosquito-Borne Disease Outbreaks

SMITHSONIAN

The ebb and flow of rainy seasons corresponds with the hatching of millions of mosquitoes—and the spread of diseases they carry

Few natural phenomena pose a greater threat to humans than a swarm of mosquitoes erupting from a cluster of soil-lodged eggs. These bloodthirsty menaces can carry a host of diseases, such as Zika, West Nile and malaria, making mosquitoes the world’s deadliest animals.

Mosquito-borne diseases threaten billions of people, and while the diseases vary in biology and geography, most, if not all, are exacerbated by climate change. Scientists predict that a warming world will invite the spread of more mosquitoes, and more illness, threatening a billion more people over the next 60 years. But long-term predictions are hard to act on, and public health experts believe short-term forecasts could better kick-start programs to save people’s lives today.

For the last 20 years, scientists studying weather patterns have pieced together how real-time data can help predict mosquito-borne disease outbreaks weeks or even months before the insects emerge from the ground. These tools may provide a mechanism to prevent millions of deaths, tracking monsoons and other rain cycles to forecast mosquito hatching events.

Read the full story in Smithsonian

Mosquito-borne diseases get a boost from climate change

MASSIVE SCIENCE

Bugs like it hot, and evolve faster when there’s lots of carbon dioxide

We often think of climate change in terms of extreme weather, but the impacts of global warming will extend far beyond natural disasters. Scientists suggest climate change will also make more of the world hospitable to mosquitoes—and the diseases they carry. To make matters worse, new research shows that climate change may also be supercharging mosquito evolution.

Zika, West Nile, and dengue are just a few of the deadly viruses that depend on mosquitoes to spread. Human diseases like these are also carried by animals like birds and rodents, who don’t always show symptoms. But if a mosquito bites an infected animal, it can later transmit the disease to other animals, including humans. That’s why many disease prevention efforts focus on controlling mosquito populations—a task that’s about to become a lot harder.

Read full story in Massive Science

Republished in Pacific Standard Mag

Mosquito control could slow the spread of disease in a warming world

THE VERGE

Diseases and disasters

The recently announced Green New Deal, a resolution to help address the threats of climate change, gives public health advocates a chance to confront an overlooked consequence of climate change: worsening mosquito-borne illnesses.

The resolution, which outlines projects designed to boost renewables, reduce emissions, and climate-proof the country’s infrastructure, was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). Its goal is to extinguish potential economic, national, and social infernos that are brought on by climate change. But the plan also recognizes growing threats to public health, such as the diseases becoming far more common in a warming world.

Climate change has already expanded the reach of mosquitoes that carry certain illnesses. More extreme weather events are also part of the package, and more severe storms, stronger hurricane seasons, more floods and droughts also increase the risk of disease after a natural disaster. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change could increase the number of people who are at risk of malaria by over 100 million.

Read more in The Verge